At the end of February Theresa May announced that she would belatedly create a Child Funeral Fund to pay the costs of all children’s funerals in England. This comes 11 months after she made the initial promise, following a campaign by MP Carolyn Harris. Child funerals are already free in Wales. The costs of burials or cremations in England will now be undertaken by the government and this will put an end to what for many has been a great injustice: struggling to pay for their child’s funeral whilst already grieving their loss. The renewed promise of the fund, due by the end of July, is welcome news and a step towards better support for bereaved parents. It prompts us to ask, however, how good we are as a society at supporting grieving parents and bereaved families in general.
Responses at the personal level
Scripture contains several instances of parents losing their children and some of them – in God’s mercy – were brought back to life. Examples include Elijah raising the widow’s son in 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Jesus raising Jairus’s daughter in Mark 5:21-43 (also found in Matthew and Luke’s gospels). The clearest exposition of supporting a bereaved family, however, is not found with a child’s death but with the death of Lazarus, Jesus’s close friend in John 11:1-44. Jesus is told of Lazarus’ serious illness when he is two days’ journey from Bethany, where Lazarus and his sisters lived. His first reaction on hearing the news is to proclaim that it will not end in death and that it will be for God’s glory. That’s the first principle we can take from this passage as we seek to support the bereaved: remember that how we support them can bring glory to God.
We can also learn something from the many friends, family and acquaintances of Mary, Martha and Lazarus who come to comfort them (v. 19). These mourners show by their presence that they care for Mary and Martha and, indeed, Lazarus. This is our second principle: show up. By attending the loved one’s funeral and showing support at the six month, one year and two year anniversaries, we show the grieving person that we have not forgotten their loved one and give them a chance to talk about them and express both their sorrow and their joy at the memories they shared.
Thirdly, we learn from Jesus how to share the sorrows of the grieving. When Jesus sees the sorrow of Mary and the mourners in verse 33, he is deeply moved in spirit and troubled. When told to follow the mourners to the tomb, he wept (v. 35). The watching crowd see this as confirmation of Jesus’s love for Lazarus (v.36). By expressing his grief, he shows to Mary and the mourners that he deeply valued Lazarus. By suffering with them, he affirms that it is right to mourn the loss of a loved one. We must be willing to show our grief at the loss of another’s loved one. By doing so we give both them and ourselves an opportunity to grieve and to release the pent-up emotion at the loss.
Responses at the societal level
What does supporting the bereaved look like on a societal level? The clearest answer is that we must prevent a loved one’s death resulting in financial hardship for their surviving family members. The Child Funeral Fund aims to do this by waiving the local authority costs for funerals. But how big a problem is not being able to afford to pay for a loved one’s funeral, so-called ‘funeral poverty’? Though councils provide paupers’ funerals when no suitable arrangements have been made for a deceased person, debt counselling charity Christians Against Poverty found in 2016 that one in ten of their clients incurred debt paying for a loved one’s funeral. It cannot be right that those who are already suffering the loss of a loved one should suffer the further loss of financial hardship.
2 Kings 4:1-7 tells the story of a widow who has inherited her husband’s debts, and who the prophet Elisha then saves from having her sons taken into slavery. Though the debt is not incurred through the funeral costs of the deceased husband, this account shows us how those who are bereaved and in debt are incredibly vulnerable. The gracious help Elisha provides, through a miraculous supply of oil which she sells to pay off her debts, is an example of helping the bereaved financially. Though we may not be able to perform miracles like Elisha, we – as Christians and as society as a whole – must show solidarity with bereaved people in debt. Whether this happens through charities supporting indebted grieving families financially or on a public policy level, as with the Child Funeral Fund, we must protect these vulnerable members of society and enable them to flourish in the future.
Our society has much, then, to learn from the Bible about how to support the bereaved. On a policy level it is essential that the promised Child Funeral Fund is delivered and that the government creates the conditions for charities to support those grieving a loved one. But on a more personal level we have learned several key principles for supporting grieving families: that we can glorify God in how we support them, that we must show up and that we must share with them in their sorrows.
Peter Redmayne is a participant on Jubilee Centre’s SAGE Graduate Programme. He graduated from Durham University with a BA in Modern Languages.